We find Adult Swim's claim that Pool Panic is "The World's Least Realistic Pool Simulator" to be some way short of accurate. That's not to say that the game is in any way high on realism, you understand. In fact, it's as mad as a hatter. But to refer to Pool Panic as any kind of Pool Simulator is kind of like calling Splatoon 2 a Painting and Decorating Simulator. So it's a sports-adventure game, then? Well, yes. And also no. Not in the classic Mario Golf, Mario Tennis or Golf Story sense.
Rather, it's a physics puzzler-meets-minigame compendium, all accessed from a free-roaming open world hub. There are notes of WarioWare and Katamari Damacy in here, as well as a whole bunch of other wildly imaginative binge-snacking oddities. That's not to underplay pool's influence here. The great pub game is everywhere you look in Pool Panic. Your protagonist is a walking, gurning cue ball, while most of the zany characters you'll cross paths within each self-contained level are some other colour or type of ball.
The way in which you interact with these ball-like characters is taken from the game of pool, too. Hold the right stick to aim, then hit the ZR or R buttons (the latter for more finesse) to smack your cue ball into the object ball - and hopefully into a pocket. Even the sequence of play for each level is familiar: pot all of the colour balls, followed by the black 8-ball. Potting the cue ball is generally considered a bad thing, except when you're jumping in after the 8-ball to close out a level.
All of which sounds very much like a pool simulator, doesn't it? But it's really not. For one thing, the vast majority of Pool Panic's 100-odd levels bear no resemblance to a pool table at all. They're farms, factories, roads, cliffs, football pitches, big tops, toxic swamps and much more besides. Even the 'pockets' take the form of potholes, craters and mouths. Another important thing to note is the camera angle. It's largely fixed slightly above and to the side of the action, like an old-school scrolling beat-'em-up. You can wander into and out of the screen as well as left and right, but there's absolutely no control over the camera's angle, and no traditional 'top-down' view. This can actually be a little irritating, as there are numerous occasions where you can't see both balls and the pocket you're aiming for at the same time. But we'll come to Pool Panic's drawbacks in a bit.
Finally, there's the general behaviour of all the balls, and their unique relationship to the levels they're in. We've already mentioned that your cue ball can scamper around each level on his little legs, but so too can the target balls. Some will even sidestep your cue ball when it approaches, or stand completely firm when hit. For each level, then, you need to first figure out how to access all of the balls. Then you need to work out how you're going to get them into the pockets - assuming you can even see the pockets, which is another potential layer of the puzzle.
There are unique rules that govern each and every level, and it's up to you to crack them. If you can do that and meet each of the level's set conditions, all the better. Those conditions include finishing within a certain time, potting all of the balls, finishing within a set number of strokes, and not potting the cue ball or the 8-ball before time. Curiously, though, we very quickly found ourselves not caring to go back in and perfect each level - or even to take a second run at them once we'd finished them. We much preferred to accept our initial sub-optimal run and move on to see what was around the next corner (you may be different).
On the plus side, this speaks well to the game's level of imagination and sheer variety. It also reflects favourably on the beautifully expressive, weird universe that developer Rekim has created. It's well worthy of the Adult Swim name, that's for sure. Conversely, this instinct to skim over the game's surface rather than dive in and perfect it speaks to the clunkiness and superficiality of its mechanics. To put it rather brutally, Pool Panic is way more fun to experience than it is to play. You really don't know what's around the corner, which provides much of the game's joy. But one thing that you can guarantee is a finicky aiming system, where just getting your cue ball to move a smidgen in one direction can is an exercise in frustration.
There are often too many chaotic variables for you to be able to tick off more than one of the four level conditions at a time. Problematic camera angles, inconsistent ball physics, unhelpful colour balls - all combine to take the edge off what is otherwise a wonderfully fresh gaming experience. Those issues become less pronounced in Pool Panic's highly entertaining local multiplayer modes, which could well become a staple part of regular couch sessions. It's hilarious.
Indeed, Pool Panic as a whole is an absolute hoot to play. It's completely unhinged, mostly for the better, but occasionally for the worse. It's like a super-powerful break-off shot: all colour and chaos and kinetic energy. But occasionally you know the cue ball is going to fly off the table or into a pocket.
A wildly imaginative and vaguely psychedelic physics puzzler with a novel pool-based twist, Pool Panic is frequently thrilling and almost never boring, but it's also mechanically suspect and occasionally frustrating. In short, it has cult classic written all over it.